Almost everybody wants to get high, and almost everybody does. It’s just a matter of degree. You may limit yourself to the jangly enthusiasm derived from morning jolts of coffee and/or those stress-unraveling sips of post-work alcohol, or you may be a weekend warrior who takes the party journey from heightened sociability to the fuzzy cocoon of trance-out solipsism. You may indulge in something every day and be addicted to it, or just once a week and remain relatively undamaged, but in one way or another you’re going to get your fix. It’s how we’re wired, and we seek out the buzz at an early age, first from copious amounts of sugar and improvised spinning games that leave us lightheaded, later from that first purloined cigarette and finally from whatever’s up for grabs in our peer group and social place. There’s no stopping us. So the questions then become, what is the place of drugs in society, how much control is necessary, how much is effective, and (less often asked) how did we get where we are, this bad place where most drugs are seen as agents of evil and gateways to depravity?
The common theme that runs through three recent histories of intoxicants is that somewhere along the line we lost our ability to look at drugs objectively. In both Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics and Stuart Walton’s Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication, the historical increase in the variety and availability of mood-altering substances is seen as having been accompanied by an increase in government irrationality. Both authors consider the " war on drugs " as misguided and counterproductive. Davenport-Hines, who despite the " Global " in his subtitle focuses mainly on the West, from the Enlightenment on, makes an explicit connection between the modern concepts of individuality and self-knowledge and the lure of artificially induced transcendence. And though a certain degree of transcendence would seem a good thing, overindulgence is subversive, first on a personal level, then on a societal one, as he makes clear in his assessment of Thomas De Quincey, the famous 19th-century opium eater, who, " like many other drug users, had a sense of identity that was often unstable, improvised, disintegrating and discontinuous. Habitual users of narcotics seldom fit into the bourgeois sense of human identity as serious business, stable, abiding and continuous, requiring the assertion of one true cohesive inner self as proof of health and good citizenry. "
But the real troubles start and spread from America, where, referring to the " pursuit of happiness " clause in the Declaration of Independence, he writes, " The ‘self-evident’ truths of 1776 are central to American culture, and can seem an inducement to act on self-indulgent impulse. Moreover, the introspective American puritan tradition, with its emphasis on self-examination of conscience, has aggravated the tendencies to self-absorption. " Happiness, Davenport-Hines points out, is unrealistic as an expectation, let alone a right, and the ensuing disappointment, combined with an impulsive nature, leads to the seeking of easy solace. This sounds good but seems a little glib. A nation of brooding philosophers unhinged by the glimpses of their inner void seems less likely than a country that has the freedom to medicate itself and to oil the rough journey toward varying degrees of despair that life guarantees for so many.
Walton covers much of the same ground, and his book, like Davenport-Hines’s, is factually detailed and rich in anecdote, but the tone is decidedly different. Walton is a witty writer, and when he deals with the prohibitive mentality, or debunks the myth of gateway drugs that lead to harder stuff (as opposed to the gateway situations in which drugs are now procured) and the idea of instant addiction, he evinces a sharp tongue. His description of the various kinds of disconnection between reality and actuality that occur when a governing entity, religious or secular, tries to wage war on drugs is thorough. He also reaches farther back in time than Davenport-Hines to detail the evolution of intoxicants from religious sacrament to scientific tool to party-down fuel. He describes how wine was crucial to the Dionysian cult and a spur to analytical thought in the Platonic symposium (where it was watered down in order to keep the conversation relatively coherent), then traces the progress of various intoxicants as they interface with the three major Western religions before turning to the modern buffet. Drugs can be dangerous, of course, but in the end he defends, or at least concedes, the individual’s right to get ripped. " Intoxication is so uncontrollable because it is lustrously colored with the deepest dyes of subjectivity, " he rhapsodizes. " It reminds you gloriously that you exist, that you are capable of quite different forms of consciousness from the one you wake up in each morning and that your serotonin reserves are after all your own to manage. "
David T. Courtwright’s Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World is an altogether more sober (as it were) survey. His focus is on the economics of the various drug markets, both licit and illicit, and he argues against the legalization of drugs like marijuana and cocaine because the inevitable tax that would accompany it, along with the restriction of the supply to adults, would encourage the continuation of a black market. He’s less interested in the physiological/cultural/spiritual allure of drugs than in the history of who controls the flow of this " ideal product, " and though that’s a potentially dry approach, he writes with engaging precision and unexpected touches of humor. I came away with the sense that the " drug problem " has never been handled well because it’s too big, too complex, and too overwhelming for mere human agencies.
Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madame Geneva follows the progress of one specific drug in one specific form as it evolves from novel intoxicant to epidemic scourge. Gin (also known as Geneva, My Lady’s Eye-water, the Last Shift, Cock-my-Cap, Kill-Grief, Comfort, etc.) was the crack cocaine of 18th-century England, having begun its devastating work before the feeble attempts at control and some form of prohibition could be enacted. Although this is a horror story, it’s a colorful one, and Dillon conveys a Peter Ackroyd–ish sense of London as a living organism that periodically devours its inhabitants.
There’s also drugs as a spur to creativity, a means of accessing counter-realities and bringing it all back home to the printed page, the canvas, the musical score, etc. Or so the legend goes. More likely, as Marcus Boon suggests in The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, creativity doesn’t get extracted from the drug experience like water being scooped from a well — rather, drugs are one of several factors acting on already creative personalities. Boon is thorough, his subjects ranging from Nietzsche to Lester Bangs, and he’s good at describing how certain drugs are crucial to certain literary periods. Unfortunately the academic approach he favors, compact and a little lofty, makes the book a bit of a slog.
And so we put aside the complicated history of drugs and writers and turn to Under the Influence: The Literature of Addiction. It’s a decent sampler, made up of short stories, essays, and excerpts from longer works and mixing the usual suspects — De Quincey, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Huxley, Cheever, Burroughs — with more obscure writers. And though I’m not sure what point there is in reading the snippets rather than going to the sources, the book does establish a pedigree for drug-related writing. It also has a brief but eloquent foreword by Pete Hamill; writing as someone who’s come back from the far side of addiction, he reiterates that an effective approach to the problems caused by drugs must include empathy for the sufferers and self-knowledge as it pertains to human susceptibility. To which I would just add, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.